Push for stronger beer in Utah stores clears Senate but now faces higher hurdle in House

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) 3.2 beer on the shelves at Smith's Grocery in Salt Lake City, Friday, January 26, 2018. The selection of 3.2 percent beer in Utah grocery and convenience stores is expected to decline — as much as 40 percent — later this year. The beer industry want the Utah Legislature to change state law to allow beer that is 4.8 percent alcohol in stores. However, according to a new Salt Lake Tribune poll, Utah residents on split on the issue, with the majority of Republicans and active Mormons opposing the idea.

Low-alcohol 3.2 percent beer in Utah took another baby step toward elimination Tuesday, when the state Senate passed SB132, which would allow stronger brews to be sold in grocery and convenience stores.

It passed in a decisive 27-2 vote with almost no debate.

Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, was the lone lawmaker to comment on the Senate floor Tuesday, the day after an extended floor debate on the measure. He said that while he had received mixed feedback from the micro-breweries in his district, he was excited to see Utah “normalize” its liquor laws and believed SB132 would boost competition and benefit consumers.

"I may be one of the two or three members in this body that actually consumes alcohol,” Kitchen said.

Tuesday’s vote showed greater support for the bill than a preliminary 21-8 count in the Senate on Monday. SB132 will now move to the Utah House.

The measure would increase the alcohol limit for beer sold in retail stores from the current 3.2 percent by weight to 4.8 percent — or from 4 percent by volume to 6 percent, a more common industry standard. Large national brewers are phasing out 3.2 beer because so few states now sell it.

Beer sold "on draft” at restaurants and bars could also increase to the 4.8 percent alcohol level under the bill. Stronger beer would continue to be sold in state-run liquor stores.

If the bill is approved and signed into law, Utah’s alcohol limit for grocery store beer still would rank among the strictest in the nation.

Across town, at the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control offices, the state liquor commission pondered SB132′s chances of success in the House.

“The difficulty is going to increase,” Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Beer Wholesalers, told the board. “We have taken straw polls, and we have enough votes to get it passed, but we have to get over a couple hurdles."

Among those obstacles: Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which came out against the proposal.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, has said the measure is not a moral or alcohol issue, but rather one that affects business. If Utah were to keep the 3.2 beer status quo, it would be a tremendous hit to stores where beer products make up a significant part of sales.

Reporter Kathy Stephenson contributed to this story.